The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 16
When the monk interrupts his letter writing to pray before the great stone cross in the center of the village, Elswyth distracts an anxious Leif by taking him to visit her grandmother. But granny seems to see something that neither Elswyth nor Leif is yet aware of. Get caught up using the index page.
For a moment Elswyth and Leif were held entranced by the practice marks that the monk had made on the surface of the table. Leif touched one with his finger, which came back black and left a smear. He sniffed the ink and then touched it too his tongue, grimacing at the taste.
“Let me taste,” Elswyth said, taking his finger in her hand and touching it to her own tongue.
“That’s awful!” she said.
“I suppose it is not meant for drinking,” Leif said.
“Granny would make it a medicine for something, I bet,” Elswyth said.
“Where has the monk gone? To the latrine?”
“Oh, I know where he’s gone,” said Elswyth. “I’ll show you. It’s kind of interesting. But I think I’d better put the pen and ink away first. The slaves will be in here soon to start making dinner.”
Elswyth found a safe place for the monk’s tools, and then took Leif by the hand and led him out to see what the monk was doing. They found him kneeling before the great stone cross in the center of the village, chanting in Latin.
Leif wanted to interrupt him and get him back to his work, but Elswyth put a hand on his arm and said, “He prays eight times a day. He even gets up in the middle of the night to do it, though some nights he sleeps through and is all upset with himself in the morning. I think in the monastery there is someone whose job it is to wake them up to pray in the middle of the night. He asked the watchmen here to do it, but they forget. Anyway, it’s no use disturbing him. He won’t do anything until he gets to finish.”
“He prays, but he makes no sacrifice? I don’t see what good can come of it. Do you all do this?”
“We all say our prayers, of course, morning and evening. We pray to Ælfflæd and Cuthbert. I pray to Agnes, of course. And if a priest visits we have the Mass.”
“Who are Ælfflæd and Cuthbert and Agnes? I thought you only had one god, the one you call Christ.”
“Not gods, silly, saints.”
“What is a saint, then? Are they like an elf or a dwarf or a troll?”
“No no. Oh, how can I explain it? A hero, I suppose. Only a holy hero. Ælfflæd and Cuthbert are our own saints—Northumbrian saints, I mean—so they are our special patrons and they look after us.”
“Oh, well, all girls pray to Saint Agnes.”
Elswyth pursed her lips and flushed a little. “She is the patron of virgins,” she said.
“A god of virgins?” Leif said. “This is very strange to me. We have Freyr, who is goddess of fertility. Women sacrifice to her to get children. But a goddess of virginity is strange indeed, for every people has need of fertility and increase.”
“Well, if you say the right prayers on her feast day, Saint Agnes will help you find a husband.”
“That is good service I suppose. But your husband was found for you long ago. Why do you still pray to her then?”
“I don’t know. I like her, I think. She was a girl like me. And she was a martyr— they tried to make her a whore, but she refused and they killed her.”
“You have strange heroes. Are you certain Brother Alun does not work magic?”
“The priest says that in the Mass he makes bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ. But Granny says you can’t work magic with just words. You need blood or stool or something with sap in it, or a feather, or…well, all sorts of things really.”
“It is the same with magic among my people,” Leif said.
“You should come and meet Granny, while we’re waiting,” Elswyth said.
“Your father’s mother?”
“No, Father’s mother, Grandmother Edmunda, died three years ago. Granny is Mother’s mother. Granny Hunith.”
“Was she not in the hall for the feast? Why was I not presented to her then?”
“No. She won’t come to the hall. She is still a slave. All the rest of the family are still slaves—Grandmother Edmunda made Father promise not to free any of Mother’s kin if he wanted to marry her. Granny Hunith used to be her maid, until Mother ensnared Father. That’s what Grandmother Edmunda called it—ensnared. But she hated her after that—Granny Hunith I mean. She didn’t like Mother much either, though she always loved me—though she loved Hilda best, because she looks so much like her. But she hated Granny Hunith. She said she had egged my Mother on to seduce my Father—which I don’t think is a bit true because Granny doesn’t much like Anglish. So Grandmother wouldn’t let Granny be her maid anymore. So even though Mother was Lady of the Hall, Granny Hunith actually had harder work to do. Anyway, she still lives with the slaves, and they all love her and take care of her now she is old. Mother wants her to live like a lady and wear jewels and take her meals in the hall. Father wouldn’t mind. He never promised to treat her like a slave, only to keep her a slave. But Granny won’t. She thinks the slaves and the free people would both resent her if she did. But we make sure she eats like us. We take her sweet cakes and wine all the time. Well, Mother does, and Moira and I do. Hilda doesn’t. Hilda likes to pretend she’s pure Anglish, so she pretends Granny doesn’t exist. Would you mind if your children were not pure Norsk?”
“My people get wives from many lands,” he replied. “We take them in battle or in trade. There are never enough women. Great men take many wives and concubines. And many women die in childbirth. Ordinary men are left with no one to marry.”
“I suppose you could say Father got Mother in trade. My great-grandfather bought Granny from a Mercian, after all. Mother pops babies out with no trouble at all—like shelling peas, she says. And we’ve all lived, so far. Granny was the same. I have so many aunts and uncles. I expect I will be the same way.”
Granny Hunith, was an elderly woman. Edith had been her last child and she was well past her sixtieth year, though no one seemed to remember when she was born, and if she knew herself, she was not telling. Hunith and Kendra had disputed for several years over which of them was the elder, for it was some distinction to be the oldest woman in the village. Kendra’s impending death would secure Hunith her supremacy, an event she looked on with a mixture of triumph and regret.
She was sitting on a bench outside her hut, a spindle busy in her hands while she watched several small children—offspring of Elswyth’s Welisc cousins—playing in the dirt at her feet. She was dressed in rough-spun brown like a slave, though underneath she wore fine-spun linen, so as not to itch from the wool. She had the face of an aging well-tanned cherub, framed with long grey hair that her various daughters and granddaughters, noble and slave alike, kept immaculately combed for her.
The children leapt up and ran to attach themselves to Elswyth’s skirts when they saw her coming, begging for the nuts or apples that Elswyth usually had with her when she came to visit Granny. But today she had forgotten to bring anything, so she kissed each of them on the cheek and sent them away.
“Hello, Granny,” she said as they approached. She and Leif were hand in hand, though neither had consciously offered a hand to the other.
“So you’ve brought your swain to see me at last, Elsy,” Hunith said.
“No, Granny, this is Leif.”
“Help me up, young man,” Hunith said.
Leif offered her his hand and she pulled herself to her feet. She did not let go of his hand, however, but held him with one hand while she inspected him with the other, testing the muscle in his arm and forcing open his mouth so she could inspect his teeth. She lifted the corner of his bandage and made him bend over so that she could smell the wound.
“It’s fresh, Granny,” Elswyth said. “It wouldn’t smell yet. I bound it with honey so it would not fester.”
Hunith nodded. “Well, he’s fit,” she said, when she had completed her inspection. “Very tall. Tall men are good in battle, but it can be hard work birthing their babies. Big babies could get stuck inside a wee thing like you.”
“I’m not having his babies, Granny.”
“Waiting till the wedding, then? You are taking her on faith, young man? Don’t worry, we’re a fertile lot, and we birth easy.”
“I’m not marrying him, Granny. I’m marrying Drefan. Don’t you remember? This is Leif, the captain of the Norsk ship on the beach.”
“Norsk? You still remember the old gods, young man?”
“We honor Odin, Thor, and Ran.”
“And what of the Christ, then?”
“I will give no offence to your Christ, in his own country.”
“Good lad. Will you be taking Elsy back to Norway, when you marry?”
“I am not marrying your granddaughter, Lady.”
“Lady? You’re not in the hall now, young man. I’m not an Anglish lady, and I won’t hear it said. You heed me?”
“You should call me Granny, since you are marrying Elsy.”
“He’s not marrying me, Granny. I’m marrying Drefan. You would have met him several times already, if only you would come to the hall when he visits.”
“I’ll not go to the hall, and Drefan of Bamburgh will not come down to the slave huts to visit me. But this young jarl of yours, he comes to see me when you ask him to. He regards the whole of you, not the half. He will make you a good husband.”
“But I’m not marrying him, Granny. Stop being dense. I know you’re not really.”
“She has a temper, this one,” Hunith said, still holding on to Leif’s hand. “But she has a good heart. Do not beat her. She will disobey you sometimes, but she will be sorry for it. She has a good heart, and beating would only turn her sour.”
“I would never beat her,” Leif said.
“You will be a good husband. She will be a good wife. She can’t sew, but she will entertain your guests and take good care of your children.”
“You may tell your mother I approve the match,” Hunith said, dropping Leif’s hand and taking both of Elswyth’s hands in her own. Then she pulled Elswyth close and whispered. “Come to me before your wedding night. I have a salve that will make things easy for you, and herbs to put in his food, and a charm for under the pillow.”
“I’m sorry, Leif,” Elswyth said. “Sometimes she’s lucid as a bishop and sometimes she’s just dotty. This must be a dotty day. Let’s go and see if the monk has finished his prayers.
Elswyth kissed her grandmother goodbye. Leif bowed to her and thanked her for receiving him. They turned and walked back toward the hall, her hand falling into his again, without either of them noticing.
Hunith sat back on her bench, picked up her spindle, and watched them go, a contented smile on her face. She could always tell when the weather was changing, long before other people noticed the sun come out or the clouds roll in.
Next Chapter: 17. Drefan (coming next week)
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